Austria's rulers told to stay away as Holocaust memorial is unveiled

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Austria's first memorial to Jewish citizens murdered by the Nazis was unveiled yesterday at a special ceremony that the Austrian right-wing coalition government was asked not to attend.

Austria's first memorial to Jewish citizens murdered by the Nazis was unveiled yesterday at a special ceremony that the Austrian right-wing coalition government was asked not to attend.

Vienna's Jews vehemently oppose the Austrian People's Party's power-clinching coalition with Jörg Haider's populist xenophobic Freedom Party. They did not want the government associated with the memorial to 65,000 Austrian Jewish Holocaust victims, created by the British Turner Prize-winner, Rachel Whiteread, in Vienna's ancient Judenplatz (Jew Square).

The rise of Haider's party, which regularly attacks foreigners and minorities, has dismayed Vienna's Jewish population. Whiteread's Holocaust memorial, funded by Vienna's Socialist city council, has been mired in politics since she won the commission five years ago. This week the artist said she wanted to avoid talking about politics lest it "inflame" the situation.

However, five years ago Whiteread described Vienna - where Hitler spent his formative years - as the birthplace of modern anti-Semitism. "Vienna is the place where all these historic crossroads run together," she said. "To be asked to make a monument there is a sculptor's greatest challenge."

The memorial she came up with is a stark, white, concrete library turned inside out and engraved with the names of concentration and work camps where Austrian Jews perished. Although Vienna already has monuments to the victims of fascism and to those who died in the Second World War, this is the first specifically to commemorate the Jewish genocide victims.

The most moving moment at yesterday's ceremony was provided by the now bent and crippled Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, 91, who championed the Vienna Holocaust memorial from the start. In a thin, reedy voice, he said he had dedicated his life to the battle against forgetting "the greatest tragedy in history". He warned the small crowd in the square that Nazism had not died.

Mr Wiesenthal suggested criticism that Whiteread's creation was not beautiful missed the point. "It is important that the art is not beautiful, that it hurts us in some way," he said. And he said he was glad Whiteread had picked a library theme to remember the Jews, the People of the Book, for it was the community's books, ideas, values and cultural achievements that had been torched again and again during centuries of persecution.

A few moments later the sound of the Kaddish - the Jewish mourning prayer - rang hauntingly through the square, evoking the thousands of Jewish victims for whom Mr Wiesenthal had been speaking.

Vienna's mayor, Michael Häulp, said that the monument was not just for Jews but for the whole of Vienna. It was a point reiterated by Jewish speakers. But in a country that has failed to deal with its shameful war-time past - and its collaboration with the Nazis in the genocide of Jewish citizens - the memorial is divisive. Like the rise of Haider, Whiteread's monument has again exposed the deep xenophobic, anti-Semitic seam in Austrian society.

Ariel Muzicant, president of the Jewish Community, asked yesterday why Austria had not appealed to its surviving Jewish citizens to come home after 1945. There were 200,000 Jews in Austria before 1938. The Holocaust swallowed up 65,000 and 125,000 emigrated. Today there are only 8,000 Jews. Mr Muzicant also called for a "national dialogue" so that "this ever-festering wound can heal". But, clearly, many Austrians just want to ignore or forget. Yesterday a large posse of journalists almost outnumbered the public in the square.

The Austrian President, Thomas Klestil, who fought against the formation of the coalition government, had a dire warning for Austria. "It makes me extremely worried that at the beginning of the 21st century people have begun again to preach intolerance and violence," he said.

Whiteread's memorial stands just feet from the recently excavated foundations of a medieval synagogue ransacked and burnt during a pogrom in 1421. Referring to the persecution of Jews over the centuries, Mr Klestil said it was important for Austria to recognise that it "runs through the country like a brand mark". And he said Austria must also recognise the participation of many Austrians in the crimes of the Nazi regime.